Black box with red light on - "The Internet"

The Internet

In an episode of one of my favourite TV comedy programmes, TheĀ  IT Crowd (ironically about the staff in an IT department), a prank was played on the boss who actually wasn’t IT literate at all: She was told that the “Internet” was a small black plastic box with a tiny red light on top. Jen had no understanding of what the internet is or isn’t and maybe why should she? After all, we just use it, right? As with everything, there’s a time and a place – so now maybe the time to find out more about the internet and specifically how we connect to it. This is the place to read about it.

Spoiler alert: You may have noticed, or at least I’m admitting, I can sometimes be verbose. If you want to skip to the bit where we have our recommendations – please drive your mouse here.

Simply put, the internet is a network of connected computers and how that works is a subject for another day. For now, I want to cover how we connect to the internet. I’ll use our home setups as the basis and talk a little about office connections too.

First there is the ISP (Internet Service Provider) – BT, Sky Broadband, Virgin Media etc. They provide the network connectivity to enable us to communicate with the internet by selling us a broadband router and the network line to do so. The broadband router is actually a modem/router and has 2 effective components – the router that creates a network between the computers in your home and also a modem that connects your network and therefore the computers on it, to the internet.

The most common connection types from an ISP are either using your telephone line, ADSL, or cable and as you may suspect, the latter is the newer of the 2 types. Broadband routers on the whole enable your (home) network to have both cabled and WiFi connections. It’s probably the case that most home users connect their PCs and devices wirelessly however the benefits of a cabled connection would be where a physically located device is located – TV, printer, fridge (?!) and also that the connection speed is quicker. Obviously WiFi provides for freedom of movement within the house with the limitation being the strength of the signal the further your move away from the router.

The way that computers exchange communications, in tech terms, is via IP addresses and domain names: think of this as a lookup table where numbers (IP addresses) are allocated to (domain) names – think bbc.co.uk, facebook.com, google.com etc. Now a whole lot of companies have fixed IP addresses however most home and mobile connections have changeable (dynamic) addresses.

Table with common IP addresses – BBC, Google etc.

  • Google – 8.8.8.8
  • BBC – 212.58.244.22

Now within your network, your computers get given dynamic IP addresses which are assigned by the router and the router is clever enough to deliver the correct traffic to and from the internet and your computer. There are however times when this goes awry and it appears you are connected to the internet because your computer says that you are connected to the router, however the router isn’t actually connected to the internet.

Another techie subject of some relevance is port numbers which are part of the addressing information used to identify the senders and receivers of messages. The significance of this is that the port numbers are documented and allocated to specific tasks. TheseĀ  could be likened to locations where a delivery person might deliver and receive items in a building – for instance you wouldn’t want a sandwich delivered and left in the letterbox. In computer real-terms, some port numbers should not be open and others configured, either automatically or manually, to a certain program or function. For example, to use DropBox or other file sharing/synchonising tools, port 17500 is used.

Let’s touch on security. Your ISP will be have some sort of connectivity with your modem by default – on the basic level so that the can see if it is on as a first diagnostic step if you call for help.

There are certain settings that can and should be changed on the router. These include:

  • The name and password to actually log on to the router – known as the administrator for the router.
  • The password used to enable devices to connect to the wirelessly.
  • The radio frequency channel that the wireless signal is broadcast on.

It should go without saying that basic security practices should be adhered to which includes changing passwords. You may have noticed a recent news item about changing router passwords. A change to the broadcast frequency is not often needed however it may be required if the the signal is weak and/or there is regular signal interference.

The above basics are a solid foundation for the office setup. The main differences would be whether the company has their own internet connection, with a dedicated (static) IP address or not, or whether the internet connection is provided and managed by the office’s facilities team for example.

Why would you want or need a static IP address? There are several reasons including having an internal computer server which manages (your) network IP address assignment rather than your router doing so; external connectivity to the office is required to access files and therefore having a static IP address ensures consistency of connection.

Where the internet connection is managed by office’s facilities team, you may simply have floor port cable connections which would plug straight into your computers or you could purchase your own router to provide a WiFi connection.